Brave New Education Policy

This article was posted months ago, and I’ve had the link to it squirreled away, meaning to examine it further. The article was posted on the World Policy Institute site by Peter Marber and is entitled the Brave New Math. It captured my imagination because Marber’s diagnosis of the problems of economic policy and his recommendations for a new type of thinking parallels how I think we should view public education policy.

Just as economic policymakers have used the GDP as the main indicator of economic health, so have education policymakers used test score indicators, as well as drop out rates, as sole barometers of school health. Like the GDP, these indicators must be qualified with context and multiple measures of well-being. We have the technology and science to determine new indicators, but this must be done in a cross-disciplinary fashion with a focus on prevention and impact on community lifestyle choices.

Let’s dive further into the article itself to draw out these points:

In some respects, the fields of medicine and economics have much in common. Both are multidisciplinary fields that strive to improve and maintain the health of complex systems. But unlike medicine, economics hasn’t progressed much in the last 40 years.

Education can easily be included right next to economics there, couldn’t it? It’s a complex, multidisciplinary field, but it hasn’t progressed much.

Despite dramatic shifts in the world over the last few decades, we are still using the same old gauges, nomenclature, and policies of the past. These outmoded statistics skew perceptions, leaving us with a distorted worldview and a shaky foundation as a base for policy.

If we can’t accurately diagnose the problem, we won’t cure it.

Just as economic policymakers use the outmoded GDP as the primary indicator of the economy, education policymakers are using student test score measurements as the main barometer of public school functioning. As in economics, this provides a questionable basis for making education policy.

Over the last generation or two, the world has been transformed into a complex system of interdependent and constantly changing relationships.  [Bold added]

Schools have always been complex systems, but along with changing global economic and political contexts, schools have also become increasingly complex. Our institutional models and modes of operating, however, remain rigid and bureaucratic.

. . . Even its [GDP] creator, however, realized the limitations of GDP. In 1934, Kuznets warned, “the welfare of a nation can scarcely be inferred from measurement of national income.” He wrote again in 1962, “distinctions must be kept in mind between quantity and quality of growth, between its costs and return, and between the short and the long run.” In other words, GDP and its components can and do give us a measure of how much we produce and consume—but reflect none of the qualitative aspects of the economy

. . . GDP as a statistic may have fallen victim to the phenomenon of Goodhart’s Law. Devised by an adviser to the Bank of England in the 1970s, the law states that as soon as an indicator is relied upon for policy decisions, it stops being effective. . . . [Bold added]

This parallels the main premise of viewing schools as ecosystems. Our current perspectives on schools are heavily quantitative and reflect little of the contexts within and without schools. We need a balance of indicators that are both quantitative and qualitative. Or as Marber puts it, “new ways of measuring, analyzing, and gathering data may more accurately reflect our holistic well-being.”

Wait, “well-being“?! What kind of hippie stuff is this? If this is your reaction, then welcome to the wider world:

Some countries are designing their own national indexes to measure well-being. The UK is developing an index that not only measures economic performance of the country but also takes into account environmental and sustainability issues. Similarly, Canada has adopted something called the Genuine Progress Indicator, which starts with GDP but adjusts for negatives and economic regrettables like health care and law enforcement. In 2005, the tiny Himalayan nation of Bhutan developed the Gross National Happiness index, which takes into account health, culture, education, ecology, good governance, community vitality, and living standards—a broad way of assessing progress beyond pure GDP growth. Ron Inglehart, a pioneering social scientist at the University of Michigan, has produced his World Values Survey for almost 30 years, covering more than 40 countries, with dozens of questions that help construct an index of subjective well-being that reflects happiness and general life satisfaction.

If we can talk about this stuff in economic policy, I’m pretty sure that we can handle it when we are discussing the places where we send our nation’s children to every single day.

If you continue reading through the article, you’ll encounter some more innovative ideas that are actively being pursued in developing new understandings of the relationship of complex economies to well-being, such as the development of “megaregions” of concentrated and innovative economic activity, the concept of an “economic metabolism,” and neurological studies that suggest that people are hardwired to get upset when they see great income disparities.

But one final piece to examine from that lengthy but interesting read:

In the global age, new economic thinking needs to be oriented around developing human capital

And that, my friends, is precisely where new education thinking must be oriented, as well.

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